What makes a good location for livestock and a good location for solar parks often overlaps. They are both tall, fairly flat, and get a lot of sun as they are devoid of tall vegetation. Solar producers are therefore increasingly leasing arable land for their operations.
The increase in solar production has environmental benefits, but it can come at the cost of lower agricultural production. That is why there is growing interest in uniting agricultural and solar production in one place. For Todd Schmit, associate professor of agriculture at Cornell University, that means bringing the sheep out.
It’s still a new field (Editor’s note: pun so unintentional Doug saw it only when I asked), but some farmers work with solar producers, with the former using the latter’s land as grazing land. The solar producers pay the farmers to bring their sheep to their farms, and the sheep eat the weeds and other plants that could grow so far that they prevent the sun from reaching the panels.
The sheep are fed, the farmers are paid, and the solar producers have their vegetation without mowers and weed killers – who sometimes struggle to reach under the panels and use fossil fuels – or manage herbicides. This industry has been expanding in New York State since 2017, so a report from the American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA). The report notes that the Empire State currently has 900 acres of solar-producing land that is being grazed. But there is still a lot of room to grow.
Not much lamb or mutton is currently produced in the US. Corresponding the USDA, more than half of this meat is imported from New Zealand and Australia. Therefore, grazing sheep alongside solar panels could be a certain growth sector – and not just for meat, as sheep also produce wool and milk. Schmit noted that while the US doesn’t currently consume much sheep meat, the domestic market is growing. Raising cattle in the US could also boost the local economy.
There are several reasons sheep are the best choice for grazing on solar farms. For one thing, they are shorter than cows and horses. They also eat most types of forage, which helps keep plant growth in check. Goats, on the other hand, chew pretty much anything that poses a certain risk on solar parks.
“Cows and horses are too big and can cause damage by rubbing against the plates,” says Schmit. “Goats will eat the wires; Sheep won’t. Imagine that. Sheep are the perfect medium for this. “
Schmit recently received $ 500,000 in funding (half from Cornell, half from USDA) over three years. The funding is intended to help expand the solar sheep practice by founding a company cooperative or a manufacturer’s own organization. The project is entitled “A New Dawn for Shepherds: Grasing Sheep Under Utility-Scale Solar Arrays”. Schmit works with various farmers, experts in the solar industry and the ASGA, a non-profit organization that connects sheep farmers with solar producers. Together they will determine what New Dawn will look like and what it will offer farmers who either want to expand their sheep production to solar farms or who want to start.
As part of the process, farmers – both current and future – are asked about their shared needs and goals, as well as their shared vision for the organization. Schmit and his team will also speak to solar producers to get a feel for what they would like to see from the organization.
What form the organization will take and what it will provide is yet to be determined. According to Schmit, solar farms would generally work with a single unit rather than multiple farms. So the organization could be a kind of contact point between them and the shepherds. It could also help the shepherds with contract negotiation, marketing, planning, deliveries, and logistics, among other things. However, it will take some time to reach consensus among farmers.
“Consensus promotes participation,” Schmit told Ars. “Consensus promotes investment. The consensus increases interest in the project. “
Do you want or not?
(Pun was entirely intentional at the time.)
Schmit added that although New Dawn is more focused on New York and the American Northeast, he and his team will throughout the process develop tools, guides, financial feasibility templates, etc. that will be used by other groups who wish to begin Similar organizations can be used elsewhere. “Ultimately, we want to be able to develop things that industries, farms, developers can use. Not everyone has to start from scratch, ”he said.
ASGA co-founder Lexie Hain said the business collaboration could potentially create biosafety logs. When sheep from different farms come together they can potentially transmit disease, which is a problem that may need to be addressed. The organization may also be able to negotiate cheaper insurance and help identify details related to transportation.
According to Hain, solar pasture is still a young field, but farmers and solar operators are increasingly interested. The ASGA was only officially founded in 2019, but had 246 members last February, made up of various experts from the solar and sheep industry. “I think there is a lot of interest in it and there is a lot of potential,” she told Ars.
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